North Africa, West Asia

The US-Iranian-Syrian diplomatic dance

Those who would help from the outside must rely on dialogue, contact and diplomacy, which means Russia, Iran and Assad himself all being involved, like it or not.

Dan Smith
9 October 2013

The destruction of Syrian chemical weapons (CW) has started. In a breakthrough moment in Iran-US relations, the two Presidents talked on the phone and the foreign ministers sat down to discuss Iran’s nuclear programme. Though the connection has received little comment in the western news media, these two welcome developments are deeply linked and close to inter-dependent. How has this linkage come about and what is its effect?

There are two components to the answer. The first lies in the nature of Middle Eastern politics and the second in how we got to a UN agreement on Syrian CW disarmament.

In the Middle East, everything is connected. The North American and Northwest European habit of separating things into neatly compartmentalised topics just won’t work there.

When George W Bush and Tony Blair were trying to stitch together a persuasive looking coalition for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, they were told in no uncertain terms, The road to Baghdad must go through Jerusalem. They didn’t – or were politically unable – to get it and consequently the invasion of Iraq lacked all legitimacy in the market places of public opinion in the region. That meant even pro-US and anti-Saddam elites could not support it. And thus the politics of the action unravelled before the action itself got under way.

In years gone by, sheer power allowed the west to impose its fractured view of the region. Distortions of perspective mattered less than force and money. Now that the power is diminished - though not, at least for the US, by any means at zero level – the connectedness of the region has to be respected.

This is not the way most western politicians, officials and commentators have been brought up to see the region. And it is not the way they have been brought up to see their power. Habit gets in the way of clear vision.

Policy on the hoof

In the final week of August, political preparations were moving fast for an attack on Syria as punishment for the Assad regime allegedly (and probably) using CW in northern suburbs of Damascus on 21 August. But the normal US-UK coalition fell apart at the first hurdle as the House of Commons rejected the UK government’s motion to authorise the action. This should have been a sobering tactical setback for an over-eager government. But the government transformed it into defeat on a point of principle.

For most of those who spoke and voted against the government’s motion, the evidence at that point wasn’t clear enough, nor was the government’s commitment to acting only with UN approval, nor was the planned result of the attack. This was not flat out opposition to using force but a tightly defined contingent disagreement.

Things changed within two minutes of the vote. Labour Leader Ed Miliband challenged Prime Minister David Cameron that there should be no military action without another parliamentary debate. And Cameron replied, ‘(T)he British Parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that and the government will act accordingly.’

With that, Cameron transformed a contingent disagreement into a flat out rejection of using force.

This reverberated widely, strengthening the hand of those who opposed the attack. In response, the Obama administration changed its tune a bit. Hitherto, the case for a strike was strictly to do with CW and the ‘red line’ that using them crossed; it wasn’t about the other 100,000 deaths and it wasn’t about taking sides in the larger conflict. I still don’t think that’s a set of objectives that makes sense but no matter – that was the policy. It didn’t please those who wanted the US to bring Assad down but didn’t build support for an attack either – largely for the same reasons UK parliamentarians had given.

Now, without explicitly moving from CW-only to regime-change, the Obama administration started to give the impression that strikes would be more than the former if less than the latter. It would be CW-plus, regime-change lite. Senator John McCain, firm advocate of military action for regime change, emerged from a 1-hour meeting with Obama ‘encouraged’, apparently supportive, and telling reporters that ‘Mr. Obama gave general support to doing more for the Syrian rebels’ – albeit without specifics.

Kerry’s pirouette

It has long seemed that Obama himself has been deeply reluctant to commit US forces in Syria, even in the form of missile strikes. Even so, that was now where US policy was headed. France, recruited on the fly to be the close and trusted replacement for Britain, seemed to be in tow but one opinion poll showed two-thirds of France was distinctly not. And then came Kerry’s pirouette.

In London on his way home from the G-20 summit in St Petersburg, Secretary of State John Kerry fielded a question at a press conference: was there was anything Assad could do to avoid being attacked? He replied,

‘Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week – turn it over, all of it without delay and allow the full and total accounting (of it), but he isn’t about to do it and it can’t be done.’

It’s worth lingering on those final two clauses: won’t happen, can’t be done.  Kerry’s aides immediately cast his words as a rhetorical answer to a rhetorical question but as the New York Times put it in a background piece praising the subtle skills of Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, ‘What aides to Mr. Kerry were already trying to roll back, Mr. Lavrov seized on.’

A week later, Kerry completed his pirouette. When the agreement with Russia on how to initiate, monitor and verify the destruction of Syrian CW was announced in Geneva, he was asked the obvious question: what about saying it wouldn’t happen and wasn’t possible? To which he replied,

‘I purposefully made the statements that I made in London, and I did indeed say
it was impossible and he won’t do it, even as I hoped it would be possible and
wanted him to do it. And the language of diplomacy sometimes requires that you
put things to the test, and we did.’

You might want to think this is a case of retrospective smarts and I wouldn’t want to object if you did but the really important part of the response came a couple of sentences later:

‘It just didn’t make sense to raise a concept that hadn’t yet been put to the test or agreed upon or worked through. I’m pleased that President Putin took initiative , and Sergey (Lavrov) took initiative, and President Obama responded, and here we are.’

Thus, according to the US Secretary of State, there was no sense in the US proposing the peaceful removal of Syria’s CW because it hadn’t yet been agreed (presumably with Russia). So it had to be Russia who took the initiative (even though it hadn’t yet been agreed with the US).

It is, of course, possible that Kerry’s apparently off the cuff and unintended opening to Russia was a ploy; if so, it was a ploy that deliberately gave the impression of weakness. And if it was not a ploy, it accidentally gave the impression of weakness.

Pas de deux

So then we turn to Iran and the breakthrough on that country’s nuclear programme, long ago identified by the Bush administration as aimed at producing nuclear weapons, despite persistent Iranian statements to the contrary.  A lot of hard diplomatic graft over the years has prevented a train crash over this. The EU and the head of the EEAS Catherine Ashton have played a major role in keeping doors open for further discussions. But there hasn’t been agreement or much prospect of it. The fact is that if the US and Iran don’t come to a deal that calms everything down, dispels suspicions about Iranian nuclear intentions and lifts the sanctions, then there is no deal and nervousness, suspicion and sanctions will continue. Unless these two take to the floor, there’s no dance.

After the meeting in New York between Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Kerry, together with the British, Chinese, French, German and Russian foreign ministers, and chaired by Cathy Ashton, there’s some hope that that’s the way they’re moving. After a further meeting in Geneva on 15 October, we’ll know a bit better either way.

The interesting point at this stage is understanding why they were able to make the first steps in the general direction of the dance floor. To my mind, in this region of connectedness, the answer lies in Syria.

The US can head towards the floor because the Obama administration needs to get something out of all this apart from a reputation for not knowing its own mind. On Syria, under the contrary pressures of extremely strongly held opinions both within and outwith the USA, the administration has seemed to lack a clear policy. Not wanting to use force, it didn’t offer a viable alternative. When it finally set its sights on military action, it didn’t have a clear tactical logic or strategic end-state in mind; it just had the idea of firing missiles to make a point of principle about CW. Then it changed its sights and started to look at a broader target that wasn’t quite regime-change but not quite anything else either. And then it switched from force to diplomacy because, as Kerry said, the Russians took an initiative.

If out of this tangled skein of wooliness the US can pull off a deal with Iran that provides confidence the latter’s nuclear programme is focused only on energy, that will sort of justify – and earn at least tolerance and possibly even forgiveness for – the inconsistent mess over Syria. Politically, Obama and Kerry need talks with the Iranians and if at all possible a deal they can stand up for.

So why was Iran able to head for the dance floor? In the western narrative, it’s because of the election of the ‘moderate’ Hassan Rouhani as President. That has something to do with it but of at least equal importance is the appearance of American weakness. Iran cannot be bullied into talks but can join them pragmatically of its own volition because there is something to gain, which seems more of a prospect when US policy is not fully powered up.

The linkage between Syrian CW and nuclear Iran lies at this time more than anywhere in Tehran itself. It’s worth looking at the response in Iran to Rouhani’s diplomacy. The supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei has been supportive of the policy but critical of Rouhani’s phone call with Obama. The head of the Revolutionary Guard followed suit, saying, ‘The respected president, who adopted a powerful and appropriate position in the trip’ would have done better not to take the phone call. It is, in short, a pretty tight wire that Rouhani has to walk if his election platform of ‘prudence and hope’ is to be translated into new international openings and thus new economic possibilities for ordinary Iranians.

Walking it is easier for President Rouhani when the US is demonstrably on the back foot and acts less than all-powerfully. This element cannot be under-estimated. If the US gets more coherent and effective over Syria, the Iran opening will evaporate.

Where then does this leave us?

The breakthrough on Iran-US relations is all to the good but there is a long road to go yet. The first steps are being made with hope – as any long journey should be.

In similar vein, nothing is resolved in Syria and the civil war continues, yet there should be relief at avoiding missile strikes. There would have been no benefit but plenty of risks. Intervention with force will trap the intervener in barely fathomable complexity, the kind of connectedness of anything with everything for which the western policy mind is badly set up.

Nonetheless, the CW deal gives grounds for concern about technical feasibility and political durability. Just a note on that front: as a member of the international team who is in Damascus to oversee the process said, ‘Let it be clear that it is the Syrians who do the actual destroying while we monitor, observe, verify and report.’

Kerry may turn out to have been more prescient than he now wants to be when he said, ‘(Assad) isn’t about to do it and it can’t be done.’

In other words, this is not over yet.

I continue to believe that those who would help from the outside must rely on dialogue, contact and diplomacy, which means Russia, Iran and Assad himself all being involved, like it or not. If that point has been driven home by the diplomatic dance of the last month, that is a worthwhile lesson.

But the US is left in a paradoxical position, for how does it make sense out of weak policy on one issue giving it the opening it craves in another? Weakness creates effectiveness? – only in the Middle East.


This piece was first published on Dan Smith’s blog on October 9

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